Episode 4: Richard the Lionheart

John was the third Plantagenet king and was expected to be a warlord who would enrich his noble followers by winning battles and capturing aristocratic opponents for ransom and their lands for plunder.

The baronage in England - and also in much of Angevin France - had supported Henry II and the Lionheart because they were defending not only their own provinces as dukes and counts, but also inevitably the barons' estates in France against a resurgent king of France, Philip II.

Wars also brought what these men and their knights needed so much: booty and ransoms. We should not forget the excitement of war for many of these men. The barons had their landed estates in both countries, but young aristocrats were not interested in running their estates. They had servants to do that who extracted as much money as possible from the tenants and villeins.

They were interested in war and the profits of war. They protected their aristocratic French opponents by raising ransoms from them, not by killing them. They cared nothing for the mass of the people whose homes and fields were destroyed, and their lives carelessly lost.

When reading the chronicles of the period, I do not recollect any king or lord - French or English - expressing regret at the death and devastation they wrought upon the ordinary people. This is what chivalry was. The problem for King John was that he had never shown any military inclination before he came to the throne. In fact, Count John, just before his father's death, headed a list of lords, including the Lionheart to be, who had joined Philip II of France in opposing their father Henry II.

The English baronage had borne the exactions demanded by father and son, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, because they had provided this caste with wars - many of them successful - and loot. On the chivalric front, John failed utterly very quickly and the wheels came off his rule, to mix the metaphor. Henry II had ascended the English throne in 1154 by an agreement, made in 1149, reached by his father with King Stephen of England.

Look at our pedigree chart, and you will see that Stephen, Count of Blois, in France, was a grandson to William the Conqueror, through the female line. His contestant for the English throne was the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V and daughter and sole heir of Henry I who had sought promises from his noblemen to support her as queen when he died. She was a grand-daughter of William the Conqueror.

She was, apparently, haughty and abrasive, and men were not used to being told what to do by a woman, even as queen regnant, and earls and barons drifted away from her cause and supported the claim by Stephen of Blois, who was crowed at Westminster on 22 December 1135.

Women did not rule in their own right in this period, and the first to do so, in England, was Mary Tudor in the 1550s. There was never a queen-regnant of France, a kingdom from AD511 until the last French monarch, Louis-Philippe, in 1848. We discount the 19th century Bonapartist emperors.

Stephen's reign, from 1135 till his death in 1154, is known as the Time of Troubles, when England was pitched into almost continuous civil war, in favour of the king or the empress: a house divided against itself. English barons threw up stone castle keeps throughout the country, partly for self-defence, but mainly to project their power over their locality and its people. Stephen was even captured and held prisoner on one occasion, but escaped.

He was also considered too weak - or too polite - to act like a medieval king when dealing with rebels. He was reluctant to make examples of them by hanging, beheading them - or worse. According to Charles Mosley, in 'Blood Royal', he was 'for the most part genial, humane, upright, and reasonably pious.' This was very different from his immediate predecessor, Henry I, who was a legend in his own lifetime for ability and ruthlessness.

He invited two leading nobles - the Count of Eu and Hugh de Gournay - to Court where they were arrested and cast into prison: so much for chivalrous hospitality. Henry I's heiress Matilda had married, as her second husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, who gave the dynasty its Plantagenet surname.

He was also count of Maine and Touraine, giving him the power to conquer Normandy from Stephen in 1144 and to rule that province as its duke, in right of his wife Matilda. The two of them, frequently separately as Geoffrey was often needed in northern France, rampaged around England for most of Stephen's reign.

Geoffrey died in 1151, and was succeeded in his father's French dominions by his very able son, the future Henry II of England, who came to Stephen's throne three years later. The problem for any medieval king was paying for the kind of never- ending war, like that between England and France in the 12th century. War remains the most expensive outgoing of any government especially when war is total.

The first war of that sort was the American Civil War. Britain was one of the victors of the Second World War - a total war - but was bankrupt at the end of it in 1945 and did not pay the final tranche of its 1947 American loan until the 1980s. I think I am right in also saying that Britain is still paying off, through the National Debt, the cost of the wars against the Emperor Napoleon more than two hundred years ago.

Imagine the practical difficulties in raising the money for war in the Middle Ages when there were no paid officials. County sheriffs were not paid, nor were knights who formed juries to look into who owed what to the Crown. Everything was done by graft. All the way up the chain of authority, everyone was helping himself. Kings participated like their subjects.

For example, it was not until 1183 that Henry II nominated a candidate to fill the valuable bishopric of Lincoln, which he had kept vacant for eighteen years. When a bishopric, or a rich abbey was vacant, the king could often enjoy the usufruct. This enabled a monarch to take much of the ecclesiastical income during the vacancy.

The same was true of wardships and marriages in the royal gift, by which the king's consent was required before an heir or an heiress could marry. No doubt, the sensible reason for this was to prevent an agglomeration of lands in one family that might rival the monarchy in wealth and power. But there was much profit to be had for a king in granting his permission - at a price - for such a marriage.

Barons also enjoyed wardship and marriage among their vassals - knights and lords of the manor. Prince John married Isabel, countess of Gloucester in her own right, in 1189, and thought nothing of throwing her over ten years later when she failed to produce an heir. He should have handed Gloucester back to her. But he hung onto the Honor, one of the richest baronial estates in the kingdom.

She died in 1246 as countess of Lusignan and La Marche. In 1215, the barons of England were determined to curb severely wardship and marriage in the hands of the king, though reluctant to change their own extensive rights over their own followers.

War across the English Channel to protect Normandy and the other transmarine provinces of the Plantagenet patrimony grew increasingly expensive in the reigns of Richard and John, causing both kings to seek new ways of raising cash in England.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain